Nutrition Consultant Elissa answers common FAQs on workout meals.

The most common questions relating to nutrition and training are often about the meal before and after.

– What do you eat pre-workout?

– Should you even eat pre-workout?

– How much?

– How soon before?

– What about after?

The good new is, that for most people these questions are pretty superfluous. In a lot of circumstances, it really doesn’t matter.

The bad news is, that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer and there never is when it comes to nutrition. What I would recommend to one person would not be the same for another.

Here’s some guidance as to what might be best for you, based on some different factors.
Match the fuel to the workout.

– What are you training for?

– How long is your session?

– How frequently are you training?

The more intense the session, the greater the length of the session and the higher the frequency of your training – the more important it is that you do eat before your training and the more important carbohydrates become to your overall nutrition strategy.

Typically, pre workout meals should contain carbohydrates and be used for high demand training sessions involving the fast regeneration of ATP. So if you’re doing something intense, like high volume weight training (particularly full body), or HIIT, or a spin class or any training intensity which makes it difficult for you to hold a conversation and you’re doing it for longer than 15-20 minutes, you should eat some moderate GI carbohydrates combined with protein before you train, such as a ripe banana and yoghurt, or some grain bread with eggs.

If you’re doing something which is of a lesser intensity, but a longer duration such as a long walk, slow bike ride or hike, a mixed meal with some fats might be more appropriate, as the fats will help to slow digestion and provide a longer, sustained burst of energy. This might be something like a meal of lean meat, vegetables and potatoes 2 hours prior, then having a small amount of trail mix halfway through the session to refuel.

Are you training just to burn calories or bodyfat?

Or are you training for performance and strength?

If you’re after the latter, running on empty means you’re going to fatigue far quicker, you’re going to struggle to maintain any level of intensity and you may even cause an injury due to fatigue. Some carbs in your pre-workout meal would optimise performance on a number of levels, predominantly by helping your body to quickly generate energy and also to provide glucose to the brain for focus, attention span and attention to detail.

Fat loss is not hampered by eating carbohydrates! I would actually argue that fat loss is optimised in the presence of carbohydrates, because carbs are protein-sparing and can offset reductions in thyroid activity and help prevent the use of muscle tissue as fuel. So therefore unless you’re doing a long duration walk, even those looking for fat loss would do better to eat carbs and protein before each workout.

Even though eating a low carbohydrate diet does help you to oxidise fats as fuel more readily – this is not the same as fat burning to change our body composition. It is a myth that the only way to drop bodyfat is to cut out all carbohydrates because acute fat burning (ie eating more fat to burn more fat) is not synonymous with a calorie deficit, which is what we really need for fat loss to occur.

Did you know that your physiological and emotional state can affect your carb tolerance? As can the style of training you do?

Things such as;

– The amount of sleep you had last night
– The amount of psychological stress you are under
– The amount of volume you have been doing
– The size of the body parts you’ve been training
– Your bodyfat levels
– Your water and electrolyte balance, and
– Your hormonal status and the menstrual phase you are in

All affect your carbohydrate intake, so therefore we cannot assume that everyone should eat the same amount, nor that you’ll need the same carbohydrates pre-workout every day. Even those of a healthy bodyfat and bodyweight are going to have impaired glucose tolerance following even just one night of poor sleep, or under high physiological and emotional stress conditions. Reducing your sugary carbohydrates on these days will help you to manage fatigue, so rather than opt for processed carbs, look to fruit, potatoes and grains.

The opposite is true if you’re training 2x a day or you’re doing a huge training volume on heavy, compound movements or high intensity, full body workouts – you’re going to need more.

Everyone is different, but the general consensus is that carbohydrates will fuel performance, and that protein is essential for athletes and those who train to a high intensity and frequency. Having a meal before your workout – whether it’s 2 hours prior, 1 hour prior or just 30 minutes prior will help you to perform at your best.

Aside from this – there are no rules surrounding timing or portion size, these are completely individual. Some people find that eating too far away from their session (more than 2hrs) leaves them tanking halfway through, whilst others find that this gives them time to digest their food and they aren’t distracted by either hunger or having a full belly.

What tends to work for most is eating between 20 and 30g of moderate digesting, low fibre carbs and 20 of protein about 1-2 hours prior.

Keeping this meal lower in fat will help to optimise gastric digestion and prevent you from training with a brick in your stomach.